The power and politics of the court

My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here you go:

Almost exactly a year ago, the Conservative Lion of the Supreme Court of the United States, Antonin Scalia, passed away. His death triggered a titanic political battle that is only now beginning its final phase.

The fact that the battle over a single appointment to the Supreme Court is so important and so heated is distressing because it is the result of two concentrations of power that should be abhorrent to small “r” republicans. The first concentration is into the federal government in distant Washington. Over the past two centuries we have allowed our federal government to grow so large and powerful that it wields an extraordinary amount of authority over our lives.

The second concentration is into the Supreme Court itself. While intended to be a coequal branch of government on equal footing with the Legislative and Executive branches, the Supreme Court, headed by Chief Justice John Marshall, quickly assumed the power to be the final arbiter of the constitutionality of laws in its 1903 decision, Marbury v. Madison.

The combination of the Supreme Court being the final arbiter of the constitutionality of laws for government with massive power and control over Americans’ lives necessarily makes the decisions of the court, and the people who make those decisions, of vital importance to all Americans. And the fact that Justices for the Supreme Court serve for life renders the decision regarding each selection of generational impact.

When Justice Scalia passed away, he left a Supreme Court with a slight ideological tilt to the Left after years of it having a slight tilt to the Right. President Obama had hoped to appoint another leftist Justice to the bench, thus cementing a leftist majority on the court for years to come. The Republicans who controlled the Senate exercised their authority to thwart the President and leave the choice to the next president. When the Senate took that action, the outcome of the Presidential election was months in the future and polls predicted a strong victory for Hillary Clinton. As we know, Donald Trump won the election against all odds and has now chosen his nominee to succeed Justice Scalia.

Despite fears from Conservatives and constructionists, President Trump made a choice that is exemplary in every regard. Neil Gorsuch is widely acknowledged as brilliant, eloquent, and well-liked by colleagues from all sides. He was unanimously confirmed to serve on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals just eleven years ago. He has an impeccable resume including degrees from Columbia, Oxford, and Harvard, where he was a classmate of President Obama. Gorsuch was a clerk for two Supreme Court Justices, and has served with distinction for a decade in the Court of Appeals. It is also worth noting that Gorsuch, at 49-years-old, is young He has the potential to serve for a generation.

Most importantly, Gorsuch’s rulings indicate that he is a highly-principled judicial conservative, but one who is more constructionist of even the indomitable Scalia. Gorsuch is steeped in Natural Law and vehement in his protection of the individual from the overreaches of government. This might put him at odds with some conservatives in issues regarding the 4th Amendment, and with liberals regarding the 1st Amendment. But he clearly states in view in his 2006 book, The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia, “…the whole purpose pose and ideal of government as envisioned by the founding document of our country, is to establish a government that is aimed at securing and protecting what our founders considered to be self-evident human rights and truths.”

The Democrats have already reflexively announced their opposition to Gorsuch, even though their criticisms have failed to rise to any cogent standard. Wisconsin’s own Senator Tammy Baldwin has even refused to meet with Gorsuch, thus abdicating her role in the process and retreating behind nasty press releases and daft commentary.

Far be it from me to advise the Democrats, but their overreach on Gorsuch may neuter them further on future picks. Remember that former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid killed the filibuster rule for all but Supreme Court picks in his effort to ram through President Obama’s lower court appointments, but left it in place for Supreme Court appointments. In doing so, Reid laid the ideological groundwork and precedent for killing the filibuster rule for Supreme Court picks too.

If the Democrats in the U.S. Senate choose to filibuster and obstruct what is clearly a brilliantly qualified choice for the Supreme Court, the Republicans can rescind the filibuster rule for Supreme Court picks too and confirm the appointment without needing to make a single concession to the minority party. The Democrats’ intransigence and unwillingness to even participate in the process, and the precedent already established by Harry Reid, will provide ample political cover for the change in rules.

Then, if and when Trump gets another opportunity to appoint a Supreme Court justice, the rules will already be set to allow an easy confirmation. If the Democrats participate and allow a vote – even if all of them vote against the nominee – they will likely preserve the filibuster for future Supreme Court nominations while undercutting the political justification to rescind it next time.

If the political battles of the past few years in Wisconsin have taught me anything, it is that Democrats will overreach. Their base of radicals demands unbending fealty to ideology – even at the expense of victory.

Neil Gorsuch is eminently qualified to sit on the Supreme Court and should be confirmed with broad support in the Senate. Then we should begin the process of reducing the scope and power of the federal government and the court so that these nominations wane in importance.